You get your routine annual mammogram and, soon after, you receive a call or letter from your doctor’s office. You’re told that a potential abnormality was found on your mammogram and you need to make an appointment for further testing. Although it’s unnerving to get this news, experts say you shouldn’t panic.
"If you’re called back for additional mammogram views or a biopsy, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer," says Sandhya Pruthi, MD, associate professor in the division of general internal medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and a breast health specialist. Pruthi also notes that although "the process of getting these additional tests can cause anxiety for some women, it’s short-lived -- in most cases, the work up can be done within two weeks."
In April 2002, when the doctor told us my wife, Chris, had breast cancer, the first two words out of my mouth were "Oh" and a four-letter word. I felt shock and disbelief -- that this kind of thing happens to other people, not to us. I had no idea how I would handle this -- do all the caregiving, plus make a living. Right away, my attitude was, "It's her job to get better, and it's my job to do everything else." But it still seemed impossible.
As it turned out, Chris had stage 3 breast cancer and...
According to the American Cancer Society, about 10% of women who have a mammogram will be called back for more tests. But only 8% to 10% of those women will need a biopsy and 80% of those biopsies turn out be benign.
To help you prepare for your follow up appointment, WebMD asked several doctors to describe the tests you may receive and to share their tips on making the process easier.
At Your Follow-Up Appointment
You’re likely to receive another mammogram (called a "diagnostic mammogram") and an ultrasound at your follow-up appointment, says Pruthi. The diagnostic mammogram might take longer than your routine screening mammogram did, because the technician may take more X-rays of the breast. He or she might, for example, magnify a specific area to get a more detailed picture or repeat the same views from the screening mammogram because those images weren’t clear enough.
Just as you did for the screening mammogram, you’ll need to undress above the waist and stand in front of the mammography machine. The technician will place your breast between two plates. The plates compress the breast to spread out the tissue for a few seconds while the X-ray is taken. These steps are then repeated for any additional X-rays of each breast.
"A mammogram requires that the breast is thinned out for optimal views," says Sylvia Adams, MD, an oncologist and assistant professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine. "This can be uncomfortable, and if patients are sensitive they may find it helpful to take some over-the-counter pain medicine beforehand and to try to schedule the mammogram after a menstrual period."
For the ultrasound test, you’ll lie on your back on an examination table.
The technician will apply a clear gel to your skin and place a microphone-shaped device called a transducer on the breast. The transducer releases high-frequency sound waves and picks up the echoes from these sound waves, which are translated by a computer into an image of the tissues inside the breast.